True Stuff: Monk vs. the Printing Press

In our recent discussion regarding the menace of the telephone (and electricity, and progress in general), I mentioned that there surely existed an exhortation against even the printing press, just as there seem to be curmudgeonly railings against every form of progress, in every generation. And the commenters came through!

“Yoyo” mentions the fifteenth-century abbot Johannes Trithemius, author of the work De laude scriptorum manualium — “In Praise of Scribes.” (And yes, he grudgingly had to consent to get the tract printed in order to get people to read it.) Trithemius, a lexicographer who was also deeply interested in cryptography and steganography (the art of hiding messages), understood the benefits the printing press could bring to the scholar and the layman alike, but didn’t want it to replace the work that monks and scribes were doing, or become an excuse for monks to become lazy and neglect the devotional aspect of their work.

In that day, books (codices) were artifacts. They were large, and tremendously expensive and laborious to create, and made to be durable and to last forever. Fifteenth-century monastic scribes were the latest in a long line of clergy and learned-types sharing a bibliophile tradition stretching back to the Greeks, Persians and Romans of the pre-Christian era. And when books are rare and expensive, a library becomes no different from a cathedral slathered in gold and bedecked with stained glass: the bigger and more elaborate the collection, the more impressive. And a good library was a physical testament to the character of the collector. Trithemius was definitely on the side of books in general.

But in his tract, he homes in on the hand-writing of manuscripts in specific and meaningful ways. For example, much like a painter must begin his training by copying the masters, it is only by the act of copying the Scriptures can a scribe become truly in touch with the Word of God:

[The writer,] while he is writing on good subjects, is by the very act of writing introduced in a certain measure into the knowledge of the mysteries and greatly illuminated in his innermost soul; for those things which we write we more firmly impress upon the mind…While he is ruminating on the Scriptures he is frequently inflamed by them.

Plus, it was okay that the act of copying was hard. It built character, in Trithemius’ opinion, the same way as chopping wood (though to this “interior exercise,” i.e. exercise of the spirit, he assigned far more importance). For monks, labor was part and parcel of devotion, and if you weren’t good at writing, you could do binding, or painting, or for heaven’s sake practice. And it goes even further: the labor of manuscript writing was something for monks to do — for there was no greater danger for the devout soul than idleness.

For among all the manual exercises, none is so seemly to monks as devotion to the writing of sacred texts.

And this is really the crux of Trithemius’ argument.

He does spend some time talking about practical reasons that printed books weren’t anything to get bothered about: their paper wasn’t as permanent as the parchment the monks used (he even advocates the hand-copying of “useful” printed works for their preservation); there weren’t very many books in print, and they were hard to find; they were constrained by the limitations of type, and were therefore ugly. All perfectly functional reasons considering the circumstances of the time.

But the real kicker for him is what it means to hand-write a book even in the age of printing.

In a way, there’s a nobility to this. I can appreciate the tactile, artifact qualities of a book, or work of art that is hand-wrought even though machinery exists to create it. The idea that we as a culture place a giant premium on an item’s difficulty of creation has always been fascinating to me.

Think about it in terms of plagiarism: If I write an article that’s perfectly interesting, but you later learn that I plagiarized it, you don’t value the article anymore. You care less about the content of the article than you care about how I didn’t do the work.

People make the exact same argument about modern art: “My kid could do that!” If something doesn’t seem difficult, it doesn’t have worth.

Trithemius applies this as a gauge of devotion:

He who ceases from zeal for writing because of printing is no true lover of the Scriptures.

In other words, the way it has always been done is better, and the harder you have to work to keep doing it the old way, the more it proves you really care.

And I say that sentiment makes him a curmudgeon. Do you agree?

Quotes taken from The Abbot Trithemius (1462-1516): The Renaissance of Monastic Humanism by Noël L. Brann

Next week: Socrates vs. the written word itself!

  • Martin P

    “…is by the very act of writing introduced in a certain measure into the knowledge of the mysteries and greatly illuminated in his innermost soul”

    I can think at least 2 of my college lecturers who thought the same way – copying their written notes is a vector into the brain.

  • Ann T

    Yes, Martin, I was going to focus on just that section. I teach college-level literature and writing, and I frequently tell my students that when we write something down, our brains process it differently than when we are just sitting there thinking about it; the act of writing causes us to think differently about our ideas, or the ideas we are copying, and that produces more thoughts. For me as a reader/writer, this can happen while typing, but it happens more productively when I’m writing by hand because it slows me down–my handwriting is atrocious. I can completely understand what he says about the act of copying carefully bringing the monks closer to understanding the word of god. I’ve had that experience with poetry and prose.

    One of my (admittedly many) “kids these days!” issues in the classroom is the dearth of notetaking. That’s a lost art.

  • Martin P

    Ann… I believe the same thing happens when we talk about a problem. On many occasions just framing a problem into words ready to speak has led to the answer presenting itself. In my amateur psychoanalytical mode I think of it as moving the though from one side of the brain to the other.

  • scyllacat

    Yes, just that. While I don’t agree to the letter with these ideas (some things one cares about greatly, say, computer programs or space ships, are so big that doing them as efficiently as possible is the only way to do them at all), I agree that spending time, attention, and energy preserving and maintaining things we care about it good for us.

  • POLM

    This is exactly what Thorstein Weblen was talking about when he introduced the idea of conspicuous consumption – something that requires drudgery to produce becomes more valuable when that drudgery becomes less necessary. His example was a spoon, but we can apply this to books or cups of coffee – the less expensive one may be equally (or more) functional, but it’s less desirable. The more expensive one indicates an excess of capacity to provide for yourself, which is why having the hand-written books is desirable but the work isn’t considered materially valuable, only spiritually so. I also noticed you don’t mention him arguing that handwritten books are intrinsically superior in some way – better looking or what have you – which makes sense.

    And on note-taking, this is something people do differently. The last time I took notes was in a high-school history course, where I ended up with a hodge-podge collection of facts in loose order; if I’d done a very good job taking notes, I would have ended up with a carefully-selected, well-organized collection of facts of the kind sometimes referred to as a textbook. For me, the act of taking notes actually stops me from thinking, and I’ve always gotten far more out of class by engaging the professor and the other students.

  • dren

    I agree with the sentiment that things we write down are retained better. My chief complaint is that to really get value from the note taking I need to do it deliberately and much more slowly than the pace of any lecturer I’ve ever had allows.

    The idea that something is more valuable if it is difficult is certainly alive and well, see hyperrealism ( Hyperrealist paintings are granted an additional measure of interest and value not afforded to the photographs they are derived from and are virtually identical to.

  • Tim H

    In the days of hand copying they didn’t “hone in” on things, not even when they were sharpening knives. They homed in.

    admin: Fixed!

  • X

    Seen the game Minecraft? There’s an “unlimited” mode where you can freely construct anything you want.. but many people prefer the “do it the hard way” adventure of slowly creating structures.. and the experience / “difficultY” of.

  • X

    POLM: What you said reminded me of

  • You might enjoy the site of The Saint John’s Bible, an illuminated true manuscript of a modern English Bible version. Following in the footsteps of medieval illumination, various flora and fauna appear in the margins. They have reproductions available of various frontispieces and of the entire manuscript (in several volumes).

    In this case, as in others, we see products returning to the market in precisely the way they originally appeared: bespoke luxury items produced by contract. And while the St John’s Bible was contracted by a monastery, it was not the monks that did the copying. The motivation is less similar to the work of medieval scribes in this case than it is to that of wealthy patron desiring a unique bespoke show item. And such is the origin of all the illuminated manuscripts that we possess from the late antique and medieval periods.

    I also recommend to you The Iconic Books Blog, where you’ll find plenty of very interesting bibliographic pointers on the topic of books as more than conveyors of information. Fascinating stuff!

  • Disagree. “the real kicker for him is what it means to hand-write a book even in the age of printing.” As a teacher, married to a psychologist, I can relate that the HAND part of the brain is different from the SEEING part of the brain. I know that is a gross simplification. But I have my students make, for example, Unit Circle diagrams by hand — EVEN IF LATER THEY ARE GOING TO DOWNLOAD A PRETTIER VERSION for their own use.

    Often, the “hand” part of my brain has come to the rescue of the “seeing” part by remembering how to do something the eyes and ears don’t recall.

    Also, and interestingly,

  • …” when we write something down, our brains process it differently than when we are just sitting there thinking about it; the act of writing causes us to think differently about our ideas, or the ideas we are copying, and that produces more thoughts. For me as a reader/writer, this can happen while typing, but it happens more productively when I’m writing by hand because it slows me down–my handwriting is atrocious.” … I just read this, and this is the thought with which I concur 🙂 AND I AM A MATH TEACHER

  • The usefulness of the printing-press is without question. That said, the monk is correct on many levels, most of which — and this may be a subtle point — aren’t really directly related to the “advances in technology” axis. I am grateful you posted this, as it was intellectually intriguing!


  • “He who ceases from zeal for writing because of printing is no true lover of the Scriptures.” On that score, he is a curmudgeon also.

  • Amphigorym

    Interesting reading. But do I detect a certain fear on the part of our good man that the printing press might render what he does obsolete? Because it did, you know. It took the scriptures out of the hands of the monks and the clergy and the church, and made them readily available. Of course, at the time, it wasn’t that big a deal, since education was something reserved for the wealthy, and your average peasant couldn’t read anyway.

    My son and I had a discussion of this sort the other night. He got a Kindle for Christmas and is, as a child of the age of technology, fascinated by it. I find it interesting, but as someone who was well into their teens before the notion of home computers first came into being (and was well into her 40s before she ever owned ones), I find I like actual books. I like holding them and reading them and turning the pages. I can see the allure of the Kindle, but I can’t see ever owning one. At least not as long as the presses continue to publish books. And I think they’ll continue to do it for a long time, just as it took a while for the printing press to hit it’s stride. I don’t thinnk hardbound and paperback books are just going to disappear overnight (I actually don’t think they’re going to disappear at all, but that’s just me).

    So I suppose this makes me a curmudegeon?

  • William Faulkner wrote out large chunks of the Bible simply so he could get the rhythms down.

  • Amphigorym, how exactly would getting scriptures into the hands of more people make monks obsolete?

    It certainly doesn’t remove the need for the organization of the church as God’s representative on Earth, it just means you don’t need them to get a copy of the Bible.

  • I think Amphigorym is right to the extent that all European book production, by the end of the late middle ages, was in the hands of monks. By that time, they were the only ones with the skill to accomplish such things, though, commercial scriptoria having faded away with the late antique civic culture. But it didn’t take long after the introduction of printing before inexpensive editions were available, and literacy spread like wildfire. Note that many of the English parishes overhauled by Henry VIII toward a Protestant format had their iconography plastered over and the walls were then covered with texts.

    I’ve always myself wondered, having done a little real typesetting in high school, which was the more labor intensive: manuscript production, or movable type printing. Getting all those tiny bits of metal lined up just right and all facing the proper direction was a headache. It’s so much quicker to just write!

  • MC Brown

    Tminusfun; Monks themselves didn’t become obsolete, but their occupation as scribes did. Monks today have a variety of other occupations, but the vast majority are not scribes.

    What a great article and conversation. I have to disagree on the point of plagiarism, though. The difference between an interesting article that is original and one that is plagiarized is that the source is not given credit in the latter case. It could be that there is an idea in a plagiarizing article original to it. However, not giving credit where it is due casts a shadow over that originality. I, as a reader, don’t know where that idea came from. The article is just as interesting, but the writer loses credibility.

    Finally, I benefit from taking notes and from discussing the subject. I am not sure that the benefit is the same. I know that different people have different learning styles. In my case, taking notes helps me remember the details of a subject; discussing the subject helps me think through the subject to various new ideas about it.

    So: yes, Abbot Trithemius is a curmudgeon for the reason WryMouth says, and I guess I am a curmudgeon, too.

  • MC Brown

    Hey, maybe Abbot Trithemius isn’t a total curmudgeon. He does seem a both/and sort of guy…